Leadership or management?

Former Sotera CEO John Hillen explores the key differences between leadership and management and why you need to be skilled at both to have a successful business and a career.

This is the first column in a monthly series on strategy and leadership issues in the government contracting and technology industry.  Dr. John Hillen is the executive in residence and professor of practice at George Mason University’s School of Business, where he teaches leadership and strategy.

The more I talk with experienced CEOs, especially the executives who have led more than one company or institution, the more I am struck by how firmly they believe that leadership and management are very different disciplines requiring a completely different outlook and set of skills.

They never say that both are not needed – in individual executives or in aggregate in the enterprise – but the more experienced executives are, the more they see leadership and management as being distinct competencies, complementary but unalike.

The vast majority of formal corporate training focuses on management skills - critical skills for any executive that tend to be centered on the “how” questions in organizations: How can we get this proposal done by Friday?  How can we implement this new software update across the client’s enterprise? How do we manage our cash flow to accumulate some reserves for our investment goals?

Corporate training does a good job here – teaching and issuing certificates in project management, information systems security, database administration, and various other aspects of financial, operations, engineering, development, and project management tasks.

In contrast, leadership competencies tend to focus on the “why” questions in organizations.  Or even the ‘where”, “what”, and “by whom” questions: Why are we trying to win this contract and what difference will it make when we do? Where does that fit into our strategy? What is our strategy for this agency and why did we chose it? Who is best suited to talk to the client about this issue? What defines success or failure on this program? What are our values and why does that matter?

Leadership questions are most often about the bigger picture. The answers to these questions don’t just tell people how to get something done by the end of the week, they tell people why it matters.  Leadership questions tend to be about meaning – why what the team is working on matters to the organization and how it fits into a recognizable pattern of purpose and achievement.

Although leadership questions are bigger picture in nature than management questions, even philosophical at times, they absolutely are not just for CEOs or senior executives.

I once had a new team leader in her 20’s quiz me in the breakroom about articulating to her team of three developers about where they were going with their task and why it would matter. A certified project manager and developer, she had no problem spelling out the how, but her team needed more to perform well – they needed to know where their work “fit” into the enterprise in a very visceral sense. 

So the take-away of the CEOs I talk to is not that leadership competencies are only for senior execs and management skills are for so-called “working level” professionals. That’s a false dichotomy.

Instead, the lifetime lesson from these CEOs (that it took them sometimes an entire career to appreciate) is that any well performing executive in a supervisory role needs both leadership and management skills and should train to them differently because they are distinct. 

In the course of a professional career in any field that ultimately might include supervisory, management, or leadership roles, the general pattern shown below applies.

Leadership versus management

At the beginning of a career, almost all the skills a professional will wield in their daily, weekly, or monthly duties are technical and tactical in nature. The sort of skills that the wide range of professional certifications in our industry capture.

Moving on in one’s career, and especially at the time when a professional is asked to be a boss for the first time, that promotion might happen because that individual is tops among their peers in those technical and tactical skills.

But when the time for that second promotion in a career comes around, often the person picked to be the boss is not the most skilled per se (even in an accounting department or software development team or other highly technical area), but rather the best leader.

And leaders tend to spend most of their time on strategic and interpersonal skills – these why, where, what, and by whom questions. Leaders are in the business of making sure that the work of their team fits into the overall plan and strategy and that this is understood by everyone around them in terms that the team understands, not just terms that the leader chooses to use.

Interpersonal skills are labor intensive because people are so different. We all hear and process information differently. Leaders need to articulate the purpose and path of their teams in many different ways sometimes to make sure that everyone understands it in the way that is meaningful to them.

As I noted, recognizing this distinction between leadership and management skills and competencies, about which I will write more in future columns, is a very common “ah ha” moment for experienced executives. But doing something about it in their organization is where most of them would like to make progress.

Despite the bookshelves groaning under the weight of business leadership books, most CEOs I talk to feel they always have a leadership deficit in their company. Of course, they would love to have another planeload of competent PMPs, CISSPs, VCP-DCvs, CISAs, ScrumMasters, and the like.

But almost all of them would give that up for a car full of executives at every level of management who have taken the time to train not just to be good managers, but to layer on to their career the strategic and interpersonal skills necessary to be an effective organizational leader. 

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